Tuesday, June 28, 2022

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Witness Stones Project Completion Allows Town to Honor Local Enslaved Woman

Though the pandemic prevented a large community ceremony, Madison saw the installation of its first Witness Stone in front of the First Congregational Church earlier this month, with students from The Country School (TCS) completing the year-long research project into the life of Lettuce (pronounced leh-TOOS) Bailey, a woman who was enslaved in Madison in the late 18th- and early 19th century.

The marker, installed in a patch of grass in front of the church, is meant to simply honor and remember Bailey, after 8th graders at TCS spent months learning about and reflecting on her life through a project intended to raise awareness and civic engagement with the historical realities and current consequences of slavery.

Co-founded by retired Guilford social studies teacher Dennis Culliton, The Witness Stones Project, Inc., asks people, usually students, to engage with their community as they use primary sources and other local resources to learn about an enslaved individual who lived in their town before eventually installing a public marker of some kind, often a stone, at a place in town where that individual “lived, worked, or prayed,” according to Witness Stones’ website.

Students also worked closely with Reverend Sarah Vetter and her husband, Reverend Todd Vetter of First Congregational, as well as the Madison Historical Society (MHS) as they sought to learn about Bailey’s life as well as understand the world in which she lived.

Bailey was enslaved along with her mother by the Reverend Jonathan Todd in the late 1700s, possibly following a shipwreck. Emancipated twice, she married and mothered several children, spending a portion of her later life living in poverty in an almshouse.

Bailey died in 1820, though it is likely at least two of her sons escaped the life of indentured servitude that was the fate of many poor Black Americans at the time, despite slavery having been outlawed more than a decade before.

Kristin Liu and Heather Butler were the two TCS teachers who led the project through their English and history classes.

Compiling their research into a booklet, students penned poetry, prose, and songs intended to honor Bailey and reflect on their experiences as part of the project. That booklet will be made available through the MHS, the E.C Scranton Library, online, and through the church, among other places, according to TCS teacher and communications staff Liz Lightfoot.

Culliton said the ceremony was different, with only a handful of town officials joining TCS community members in contrast to the close to 500 person-crowds who have attended Witness Stone installation ceremonies in Guilford.

“The representation especially from the church and the First Selectman’s Office was, I think, powerful in a sense, because they represent a much larger piece of the community,” Culliton told The Source.

Lyons wrote on her Facebook page that she was “grateful we can, in some small way, acknowledge the tragedy of our history while also celebrating the life of a special, unique human being, Lettuce Bailey.”

Culliton affirmed the community and student’s commitment to focus on Bailey’s life and humanity rather than more abstract ideas, particularly in the smaller, more intimate ceremony.

“The project has always been about focusing on the lives of individuals who have been enslaved here,” Culliton said. “Kind of on the theme of Black Lives Matter, for the summer of 2020, I think that was completely appropriate what we did there.”

Humanizing and memorializing a person who, when he or she were alive, were abjectly duhmanized and were often erased or forgotten in death, is a huge part of Witness Stones, according to Culliton.

Poet Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond, who separately wrote both his college thesis at Wesleyan and a book of poetry using the same kinds of research and concepts taught through Witness Stones as he learned about his own enslaved ancestors, was unable to attend a ceremony, but wrote a statement that was read at the commemoration.

“I don’t know if there is justice for the dead,” McDuffie-Thurmond wrote, “but in gathering here for Lettuce we have the privilege to do two things: Honor the dead and fight for the living.”

McDuffie-Thurmond, an adjunct instructor at TCS, explicitly connected the horror of slavery in Bailey’s life to the violence perpetrated against Black Americans today, specifically Breonna Taylor, a front-line medical worker killed by police while she slept in her home earlier this year.

“The violence that insisted upon her enslavement is the same violence that murdered Breonna Taylor and denies justice for her family,” McDuffie-Thurmond wrote. “It is the same violence that threatens the lives of our Black transgender community, Black women, and Black children. It is the same violence that threatens my life. The best way for us to honor her legacy is to fervently resist all aspects of that White supremacist violence wherever we find it, and especially within ourselves.”

A Local Legacy

Culliton echoed these sentiments, adding that Madison residents should seek to learn about their historical and ongoing role in racial inequalities through the project.

According to Culliton, many residents and even many local teachers are ignorant of important aspects of Connecticut’s history, specifically its connections to the slave trade.

In Madison, many early settlers and residents—including one of the town’s most famous founding fathers, Daniel Hand—were making wealth directly or indirectly from the buying and selling of slaves, a practice that continued right up until the Civil War.

“The commerce wasn’t necessarily up and down the Post Road,” Culliton said. “It was from...Middlefield to Madison to a ship to Barbados—that’s what the trade was. And that is why we have these big houses. Why would you have these big houses around the green if they were [just] selling hay to each other?”

Madison merchants both supplied slavers with food and livestock, and made money off slave-manufactured goods, even if they weren’t directly buying and selling slaves, according to Culliton.

Much of that legacy of exploitation is evidenced by the town’s current wealth and exclusivity, Culliton said.

“A lovely place to survive COVID,” Culliton said. “But if you don’t understand that you have a privilege, and that that privilege started with the profits of trading with slaveholders...The school you go to in Madison, Daniel Hand [High School], was funded by a man who profited by a man who traded with slaveholders.

“What I want people to take away is the privilege we had started with people benefiting from slavery,” he added. “And the hardest thing is that we’ve done everything we can to protect that privilege.”

Culliton specifically referenced exclusive zoning, exclusive beaches, and exclusive school districting as ways that Madison, as well as many other shoreline towns, continue to keep low-income people and people of color from accessing its resources. He cited the extreme low numbers of Black students in Madison’s schools, and the lack of any progress in integrating the town over the last several decades as evidence these policies have been successful.

Referencing efforts to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, Culliton said. “We’ve been able to, through laws in Connecticut—not just Madison, but laws in Connecticut—been able to keep out people of color and say, ‘We’re not doing it on purpose.’”

Jesse Williams covers Guilford and Madison for Zip06. Email Jesse at j.williams@shorepublishing.com.

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